UK Visas: Explained

Note: I am not an immigration expert (nor do I really want to be,) and visa rules are always changing, so always take the official UK visa information on as the final word.

These are not an exhaustive list of all UK visa types, but the most popular ones for your average study abroad student/20-something year old. There are other types, but if you’re like me, you don’t have a grandparent from the UK, you definitely don’t have 200,000 pounds to start a business, and you sadly are not a famous celebrity or artist. Such is life.

Student Visitor Visa
The student visitor visa is the visa given at border control(so you don’t have to apply ahead) to students who are planning to complete a course of 6 months or less. As it’s a “visitor” visa, you can’t extend it, and you don’t have any right to work. You can travel back and forth on it while it’s active, and most study abroad students will be on a visa like this during their semester abroad.

Tier 4 Visa
The Tier 4 visa is also a student visa, but it’s either for courses over 6 months or those that also involve an internship or work placement (so basically you pay to work for free, which feels wrong but somehow you aren’t even mad). If you’re not doing a placement, this visa usually allows you to work a part-time job for 20 hours a week in term time and full time during vacation, which is great for longer programs so that you can save up money for all the chocolate you buy at the shop across the street from you. I wouldn’t know, though.

The Tier 4 visa is also a way to “stay” in the UK in the sense that you can come back on a Tier 4 visa to do another study abroad program or do to a postgraduate degree. There are limits to how long you can stay in total on a Tier 4, and you must be showing that you are making “progression” in your education, but it is an option!

Tier 2 Visa (General)

The Tier 2 visa is the work visa. It requires you to have a company in the UK agree to sponsor you; it does not allow you to just come into the UK looking for work. There are also restrictions with this visa on what type of job can be offered (the vast majority aren’t on the list), and what salary your company will pay. If you are applying from outside the UK, the company who agrees to sponsor you must also prove to the government that they have done the “Resident Labour Market Test,” which essentially shows that no one else was suitable for the role, which is why they are hiring outside.

For those interested in the Tier 2, I would suggest having a look at the official government guidelines, as there are definitely a lot of technicalities. This is another visa that can be used to come to the UK, but can be an extremely tricky one to get as the general consensus is that it is difficult to find companies able and willing to sponsor it. Don’t let that stop you looking, though!

Tier 2 Visa (Intra-CT)
There is another branch of the Tier 2 visa that allows your company to move you from their site in your country to an office in the UK after a certain amount of time. Again, there are restrictions to this, but it’s never a bad idea to keep this in mind when taking jobs at companies if you want to move to the UK. Check if they have a UK office and see if they have had anyone transfer in the past or if there is any room for movement.

Tier 5 Visa (Government Authorized Exchange)
The Tier 5 is an extremely useful visa for study abroad students wanting to come back to the UK, and it’s not talked about much. Don’t be confused by all the “Tier 5s” as there is another one, the Youth Mobility Visa, which is not available for Americans but is available to a lot of other countries. The only way I know of getting a Tier 5 Government Authorized Exchanged Visa at the moment is to go through a program called BUNAC. Once you find an internship in the UK (much easier than finding a job), you pay BUNAC a one-time fee to be your ‘sponsor’, and they work with your internship company to make sure you fit the requirements and arrange your learning plan. This visa lasts for up to 12 months for a paid internship and 6 months for an unpaid internship. See my thoughts on BUNAC here.

Family/Partner Visas
There are a few types of family and partner visas (marriage, dependent, unmarried partner) that first and foremost require you to have a familial or serious relationship with a UK citizen. I won’t include much here, as they all have different requirements and likely don’t apply to the vast majority of Americans looking to come to the UK, but they are available and more information can be found at

As I mentioned, I definitely don’t know the specifics of every UK visa, and it’s been awhile since I first started applying for mine, so some things have already changed. But I do have three Tier 4s and one Tier 5 in my passport at the moment, with plans to apply for a partner visa, so I’ve been around the visa block, so to speak.

If you’ve got a question, feel free to ask here or at, as I can either tell you about my own experience or point you in the direction of the resources I use. It is possible to move to the UK after study abroad, it just takes some planning and persistence and commitment to studying the requirements. Don’t lose hope!

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